And this illustrates why I believe the electric car is here to stay, despite the amazingly strident efforts by electric car enemies to blow every glitch in early development so completely out of proportion. Real people want to drive nice cars. How they are powered is an important issue to some consumers, but ultimately only one of many lifestyle aspects that go into purchasing a vehicle. When the EV 1 was marketed years ago, it was a plain sedan with sad little skirts over the rear wheels. It had no style. And thus it appealed only to the ultra-greens and the people fascinated by any new tech.
The EV 1 never ever, ever had a chance. Precisely because no car company bothered to top it.
Not so with the Leaf. Nissan's daring-yet-boring entry into the all-electric market looks like an overpriced econobox. And it pretty much is. But unlike the EV 1 days, other car companies have jumped into the pool to provide the first wave of real choice that we have all come to expect from the universe of gas-powered cars. Worldwide, more than 20 models of electric cars are being introduced in 2012 -- from luxury cars to tiny urban commuter buggies and all sorts of choices in between. Even some trucks. People who live on islands -- where gas can be very expensive and range anxiety is not an issue -- have discovered that electric vehicles make all kinds of sense. Electric cars are booming in Israel, which might as well be an island. Electric motorcycles are jumping in Taiwan.
This is the kind of car that costs a bit too much right now to truly appeal to the so-called mass market. (Which I cynically translate as the ever-weakening and budget-pinched American middle class. But that's a different rant for a different day.)
But what is the "mass market"? And since when was winning the "mass market" the only measure of success for electric cars? As if gasoline-powered Cadillacs and Porches are failures because Joe Six-Pack can't easily afford one. As if anybody ever measures how long a person has to drive a Corvette before it "pays off." As if internal COMBUSTION engines don't catch on fire. As if gasoline is "safe."
This is why I find Ford's philosophy about the electric Focus so refreshing -- they are building these cars to order. They are saying, we will sell you the car you want. Special orders don't upset us. We won't pretend to dictate to the market. If people are willing to spend more up front for an electric car that will pay off later, and run clean and quiet along the way, we'll make that car. That certainly reflects a change from Henry Ford's ultra-standardized Model T. (Luxury car! Model T. Commuter car! Model T. Farm vehicle! Model T. Heaven forbid! Was Henry Ford a Communist?)
Thankfully, today's Ford seems to reflect today's world. Lots of choices for lots of lifestyles.
Right now, electric cars make a lot of sense for islands -- be they actual islands like Taiwan or Hawaii, political islands like Israel, or human geographic islands like big cities. They are not well suited to the Great American Road Trip to reach that beachfront vacation spot or tour the national parks. They aren't built for the segment of people who actually do drive more than 100 miles a day.
But that's OK. There are lots of people living on islands. And that's plenty of market to start with. And that's something the car companies appear to understand better than the politicians. And despite the lobbyists.